A mysterious dark space in a strange shopping mall can be very luring especially when it is only lit up by LED screens in the window. On entering ‘The Circle’ – Zurich airport’s latest retail space built to connect a green park with the airport – I unexpectedly came across one such space – a pop-up NFT Gallery, called elementum.art showing a select few digital artist’s latest works. I wandered in not knowing quite what to do or where to go. I headed to the nearest brightly lit LED screen, which happened to be the work of the artist Aaron Huey. Turns out, he is a professional photographer who goes solo into various Metaverse worlds to find the edge – where the developers have stopped creating the virtual world.
As I was pondering why make art as a NFT, I heard clip clop noises getting louder. A gallery attendant was walking towards me. She had a big-eyed smile. Even though she was real she looked like she could have walked straight out of Second Life. There was something not quite real about how she talked to me in English about the exhibition. She seemed overly keen to know more about me, and was very curious to know what had led me in to the gallery. I tried to explain to her it was just simple curiosity and that I did not know much about NFT art. She then proceeded to tell me how I could buy one of the digital artworks if I had a crypto wallet of NFTs at the ready. If only…
After about 5 minutes of explaining she then wandered off and left me fumbling with my iphone trying to focus on the QR code next to the screen showing one of Aaron’s edgy pieces. On seeing me struggling, she promptly returned, and asked if she could do it for me. I agreed and handed her my phone; with nimble fingers and knowing how to catch the light, she was able to get the camera on my phone to snap the QR code; the accompanying website revealed the price and a link to a PDF brochure. This part of the process seemed a bit old fashioned. The reason I could not get the QR code to work first was the room was so dark!
It turns out that Aaron’s pieces are priced at about $1000 each. In the blurb about the work, it points out how edges are boundaries, which can signify the end or the beginning of the unseen – all to be explored, grasped, and shared. It asks the viewer to consider how the virtual and physical worlds connect and what is real and what is unreal. All very profound. I could imagine the artist confronting these questions while spending hours venturing forth in these unknown virtual worlds in search of an edge. To record his journeys, he films and takes virtual photos of his journey either from far behind his avatar or just in front of it. The ones shown in the exhibition convey him mainly being on the edge of various graphical landscapes such as those found in Second Life, MineCraft and Roblex. He walks, flies or jumps off them. For example, this one called Leap 293 shows a blockhead image of Aaron about to jump into oblivion.
I could see how some collectors might dabble in purchasing a few of these digital artworks on speculation. But when I mentioned to the big-eyed girl the recent outrage about the Damien Hirst NFT stunt she just smiled again. Last year he launched his first ever NFT collection, called The Currency, which was made up of 10,000 NFTs, corresponding to 10,000 original pieces of his art, largely comprising his bright coloured spot paintings. People who bought one of the ‘spotties’ had the choice of either keeping it as a NFT or swapping it for the actual physical artwork. Half chose the NFT and half the actual painting. Then, this year, Hirst burnt the first 1000 of his spottie paintings that had been sold as NFTs in his gallery and livestreamed the destructive act on Instagram. Some watched with horror. He argued that he was merely “completing the transformation of these physical artworks into NFTs by burning the physical versions…” All that was left from these is the NFT code. I am not sure what the collectors thought when seeing their art literally go up in smoke. I think I would have been one to have kept a physical spottie painting.
Next, I moved onto two artists called Harry Yeff and Trung Bao. They had created a multi-media piece that you listen to on headphones. The piece I heard was of ethereal voices singing while I watched a very colourful piece of multiple digital gems circle in front of me. Their work was generated by synthesizing a series of AI algorithms – based on a data set of anonymous real human voices that were ‘gifted to the project’. The voices sounded lovely and in harmony with the digital gems. It was very pleasing eye candy and the name ‘voice gems’ was befitting. I was tempted to buy one, but on discovering that they were nearly 5000 Swiss francs each I was not so sure.
I was glad I had ventured into this unknown landscape as I did learn a lot more about digital crypto art having explored it in first person for the very first time. But call me old fashioned as I much prefer physical art.